By Kim Everson, DVM
Here’s the scenario. A family adopts two “teenaged” spayed female cats from the shelter. These two teeny boppers are welcomed into the household by the older neutered male cat and the family’s dog. The introduction appears seamless. The new kitties cuddle with the labrador and cavort with the cat. But someone has pooped on the couch! And the rug! The owners know it’s one of the cats but which one? Is it Mister, latently unhappy about sharing his digs? Is it one of the new kitties, unsure of her surroundings or just reveling in her new freedom to go where she pleases? The poops are pretty normal looking, so it seems like a behavioral issue.
As the family’s veterinarian, my first response is “we gotta get a stool sample and run some tests.” The only way to diagnose a behavioral toileting problem is to rule out medical causes first.
“But how will we know whose poop is whose?”
Sometimes that matters and sometimes it doesn’t. I like to run the fecal tests on the aberrant stool…one that’s softer or yuckier than most or the one that’s been deposited where it doesn’t belong. The owner of the stool– when we’re talking cats–usually doesn’t matter if the problem is infectious or parasitic. Because cats generally share litter boxes we assume that if one of them has worms (for example) they all have worms and all need to be treated accordingly.
Before long I was in possession a fresh sample from one of the new kitties. When evaluating a stool sample for abnormalities, the first test is simple observation. Yes, it’s gross, but what does it look like? How does it smell? Sometimes we’ll probe the sample with a be-gloved hand checking for foreign material or worms, but 3 out of 5 senses is as far as it goes! This sample happened to be soft but formed with a portion being slightly runny.
In my veterinary practice a complete fecal test includes a smear, a float and a Giardia “snap” test. These in-house tests identify the most common causes of inappropriate defecation and outright diarrhea.
The fecal float is the test most well known. This checks for parasites such as worms and Coccidia. Coccidia are a species-specific protozoa that commonly affect young or immune-suppressed pets. As for worms, most animals with light worm loads do NOT have worms visible in their stool, so please don’t get a false sense of security that your pet is worm-free just because you see no worms! The fecal float helps us identify intestinal worm infestations by showing those worms’ eggs. If the worms inside the pet are not reproductively mature or simply not shedding eggs on a particular day, this test may be falsely negative for worms.
The fecal smear helps identify a bacterial overgrowth of the intestines. Every normal gut has a mixture of beneficial bacteria that help digest the food and provide essential nutrients. A wide variety of internal or external factors can destroy this delicate balance and cause abdominal discomfort and/or diarrhea. Luckily most abnormal findings on the fecal smear are not contagious to other pets and people.
The final part of the complete fecal test a Giardia “snap” test. This is a highly accurate test to identify active Giardia infections. Giardia is a contagious and zoonotic (i.e., affects people) protozoal parasite that is common in the environment. The parasite unfortunately also rears its ugly head in shelters and breeding facilities from time to time.
Lo and behold, while the first two tests showed no significant abnormalities, the kitty’s Giardia test was an obvious positive. Wow! Even though the kitty’s stools have appeared pretty normal, she has an infectious and contagious medical condition. This is the most likely explanation for poop on the couch and rug, NOT a behavioral quirk.
The good news is this kitty has a treatable medical condition rather than a behavioral problem. The bad news is all the dogs and cats in the house need treatment because of their close quarters. Shed in the feces, Giardia cysts (i.e., eggs) can remain viable in the yard, litter box, bedding and pets’ fur and cause re-infection, so a thorough environmental scouring is necessary. The pets were bathed, their bedding and litter boxes washed, and the yard picked up. Each pet is currently undergoing treatment for Giardia to be on the safe side. The owners have been warned to practice good hygiene when handling the animals and to contact their physician for further advice regarding the zoonotic nature of this parasite.
It is said time and again in veterinary school, “You miss more by not looking than by not knowing.” Even though the stool appeared normal and there were plenty of possible explanations for the couch poop, we discovered an important medical problem with our thorough test. Thank goodness we checked! And I’m sure the owners will feel the same way after they’ve completed a hellish week of medicating three feisty felines!